The Muscogee County School District has only eight months left on the current five-year 1 percent sales tax it has used for school construction, renovation and other capital projects.
So when the school board gathered Thursday evening for a called meeting to go into closed session and discuss whether to buy an undisclosed property, it was a good time to ask the superintendent and board chairman whether they want a referendum to approve another Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
When? Probably in May 2015.
Superintendent David Lewis and board chairman Rob Varner emphasized they haven't extensively discussed the issue, but they agreed such a funding mechanism has become a necessity, especially in a county where the school board hasn't raised property taxes for 17 straight years.
"To do neither means you shut down all capital improvements, which I think is a mistake," Varner said. "They're going to have to happen. It's just a matter of how you make them happen. We can do bonds, but guess what? You still have to pay them back. So a SPLOST is the least distasteful way of asking the public to spend the money to improve the school district."
Lewis said it's too early to specify which projects another SPLOST would fund.
"First of all, we're looking at the age of the facilities we have now," he said. "We are assessing that."
The average age of the district's school buildings is 43 years.
Regardless of the project list, Lewis is certain he wouldn't want the referendum to be on Election Day in November.
"It's about timing," he said.
Asked to explain further, Lewis said, "We aren't finishing our collection of revenue until December, and as much as I would like to have that in place, we just need to talk more about it. From my study of the issue, and I'm still learning, but I think it would be more advantageous at a later date, to see how everything plays out."
Asked when he would like such a referendum to be conducted, he said, "Probably the following May."
So the superintendent acknowledged he would be willing to have a gap in tax revenue to have a better chance of the referendum passing after his reorganization of the administration and the budget cuts of an estimated $10 million to $11 million for next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Varner was asked whether he agrees with Lewis' strategy to let the SPLOST expire in favor of more time to plan and campaign for a referendum.
"We would have to hear what the superintendent's recommendation is," Varner said. "Assuming it would be a reasonable recommendation, I assume the board would go along with it."
The school board is 3-for-3 on convincing voters to approve its SPLOST referendums:
In 1997, 79 percent of the voters passed the SPLOST to fund projects totaling $188 million, including a new high school (Northside), new air conditioners and maintenance for school buildings. But a struggling economy meant the district collected only $140 million in that five-year period. And that meant two new schools (North Columbus Elementary and Veterans Memorial Middle) were deferred until the SPLOST passed in 2003.
In 2003, in the wake of those broken promises, the referendum for $148 million in projects barely passed - by 280 votes (11,538 to 11,258). Among the projects were a new Rigdon Road Elementary School, a new school (Eagle Ridge Academy) and a new Mildred L. Terry Public Library. Money also was set aside for a new headquarters building, which became controversial when the project expanded from the original $12.6 million to about $30 million, and about $1 million in seed money for an arts academy, which still is in the planning stages.
In 2009, voters approved the current SPLOST by 57 percent (8,116) to 43 percent (6,065) to fund a $223,155,784 list of projects, including a new Carver High School, a new middle school (Aaron Cohn) and the Dorothy Height Elementary under construction. But the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession has produced a shortfall expected to be as much as $40 million. As a result, in November 2012, the board approved interim superintendent John Phillips' recommendation to eliminate $17,756,250 worth of SPLOST projects and to defer $19,568,977 more.